Racial Minority Relationships: Asian-Americans’ Empathetic Attitudes toward African-Americans

Racial Minority Relationships: Asian-Americans’ Empathetic Attitudes toward African-Americans

The relationships among racial minority groups have often been overlooked in the field of research. Concentrating only on the dynamics between racial minority groups and the majority group is problematic, because it defines racial minorities only in relation to the racial majority, which reinforces the dichotomous “oppressor” versus “victim” relationship and neglects the possible resistance from building coalitions among racial minority groups. Even though the egalitarian interracial attitude has been increasingly more favorable in the past decade, racial discrimination continuously produces negative impacts on racial minority groups (Blanchard, Crandall, Brigham, and Vaughn, 1994). The “model minority” myth of Asian-Americans has minimized the perceived impacts of racial discrimination and distracted the societal attention from solving the realistic problems that the racial minorities face, whereas African Americans have long been the least disadvantaged racial group in almost every aspect of life in the U.S. (Wu, 2002). In a White dominant society, how do members of different racial minority groups perceive one another and what strategies do they form to resist racial discrimination?

The theory of horizontal hostility argues that minority group members tend to display prejudice against members of a similar minority group. For instance, a bisexual woman might be rejected by the lesbian community because she is not “gay enough” and has access to heterosexual privileges. White and Langer’s (1999) studies supported the theory that minority group members would show horizontal hostility by negatively evaluating a target member who belonged to another minority group that was similar but more mainstream. One possible explanation is that if the value of a stigmatized group depends on its distinctiveness, minority members will perceive threat from a member of another minority group who may devalue the minority identity by making it less distinctive. Minority groups actively maintain distinctive cultures and social norms to strengthen the minority identities in resistance to the dominant group culture.

Does horizontal hostility occur in the interactions among racial minority groups? Shapiro and Neuberg (2008) found that accountability to perceived majority group norms played a significant role in the outcomes. In a mock recruiting experiment, Black male participants tended to favor the Native American job candidate, whereas they tended to favor the White candidate and derogate the Native American candidate when responses were to be made public to a group of outcome-controlling White men. The results of public versus private distinctions suggested that stigmatized group members did not necessarily internalized the dominant norms and prejudiced against the other stigmatized group members. Instead, they conducted a short-term strategy of matching the dominant group norms to achieve immediate goals and decrease the likelihood of becoming the target of prejudice in the intergroup interactions (Shapiro and Neuberg, 2008). Maintaining distinctive identity and adjusting to the dominant group norms temporarily are strategies that minority groups adopt to cope with discrimination. Horizontal hostility can be explained as a by-product of interaction among minority groups rather than a reflection of an internalization of dominant group prejudice.

Does forming organizations based on minority group identity also function as a strategy to cope with discrimination? Sidanius, Laar, Levin, and Sinclair’s (2004) study indicated that membership in ethnic organizations among college minority students increased their sense of ethnic identity and ethnic activism. Although the sense of ethnic victimization was also associated with membership in ethnic organizations, it was found to be mobilizable and beneficial when racial minority members made more attributions to discrimination. In other words, forming ethnic organizations can be a strategy to cope with discrimination in terms of strengthening ethnic identity and increasing the awareness of discrimination that may lead to more ethnic activism.
Ethnic minority organizations operate as a system of resistance that raises awareness of racism among ethnic minority members. However, how can the awareness of racism be communicated to individuals outside of racial minority groups? Blanchard, Crandall, Brigham, and Vaughn (1994) found that the white participants who heard strong antiracist views condemned racism more strongly than those who did not, regardless of the race of the person who expressed the antiracist views. The absence of any significantly racial effect of the source suggests that White individuals are capable of influencing others’ attitudes toward racial minority groups when public awareness of racism is present and delivered. Therefore, the inadequacies of public awareness and social condemnation of racism can be explained as the possible factors that perpetuate discrimination and prejudice among racial groups.
Social influence has strong impacts on intergroup attitudes. Does adopting the perspective of a member of a stigmatized individual also affect one’s perception of the stigmatized group as a whole? Batson, Polycarpou, Harmon-Jones, Imhoff, Mitchener, and Bednar et al. (1997) found that inducing empathy led to more positive attitudes toward a stigmatized group. They argued that empathetic feelings resulted in adopting the perspective of an individual who is in need to support and led to an increase of valuing the individual’s welfare. When the individual’s stigmatized identity was perceived as a salient factor of his or her disadvantaged situation, the increase of valuing would be generalized to the entire stigmatized group.

This experiment focuses on the intergroup relationships and perceptions of racial minorities. Specifically, I will examine whether Asian-Americans will empathize more with African-Americans’ experiences of racial discrimination when they are aware of the discrimination against their own racial group. While coalitions among members of a racial minority group serves as a buffer against discrimination (Sidanius et al., 2004), Wu (2002) emphasizes the importance of building coalitions among racial minority groups in resistance to White dominance. I predict that empathetic feelings can be induced among members of racial minority while recognizing discrimination of one’s own group. Ideally, the coalition between the racial minority groups can thus be established through empathy and mutual awareness of racism to function as a system of resistance in a White dominant society.

The experiment is an independent groups design with one factor. The independent variable is the awareness of discrimination against Asian Americans and the dependent variable is level of empathy towards African Americans’ experiences of discrimination.

Thirteen self-identified Asian-Americans will be recruited from the student body of University of Washington. The participation of the study is voluntary.

The participants will be randomly assigned to either the awareness group or the control group. For the awareness group, the participants will read a short essay on Asian Americans’ experiences of discrimination (see appendix A) and then read another short essay on African Americans’ experiences of discrimination. For the control group, the participants will be only asked to read the essay that addresses discrimination against African American (see appendix B). The participants in both groups will be asked to complete a questionnaire (see appendix C) that measures their level of empathy towards African Americans’ experiences on discrimination on a 1-5 scale.

Even though they both read exactly the same article of African Americans’ experiences of discrimination, I hypothesized that the participants in the awareness group, who were also asked to read the article of Asian Americans’ experiences of discrimination, would display more empathetic feelings than those who were in the control group. The level of empathy was measured by their self-reporting on the empathy questionnaire (see appendix C). The data was analyzed by independent group t-test. In Figure 1, the participants in the awareness group showed slightly higher level of empathy (Ms = 4.15) than the participants in the control group (Ms = 3.99) and but the effect failed to reach significance, t (11) = 0.57, p > .05. The participants from both groups displayed an average of above neutral empathetic feelings toward African Americans’ experiences of discrimination on the one-to-five scale. The hypothesis that Asian Americans would show more empathy toward African Americans after reading Asian Americans’ experiences of discrimination was not supported by the results.

There was a trend in the direction that Asian Americans showed more empathetic feelings for African Americans’ experiences of discrimination after recognizing the discrimination of their own racial group, even though the results were not significant. The participants from both groups displayed empathetic feelings toward African American’s experiences of discrimination, which indicated that they were aware of the racial discrimination after being reminded by the article. The results supported the study by Blanchard et al. (1994) that individuals would show more antiracist attitudes while antiracist opinions were delivered.

Horizontal hostility among minority groups that was found in past research (White & Langer, 1999; Shapiro & Neuberg, 2008) was not present in this study. African Americans have been historically targeted by more explicit, violent forms of discrimination compared to Asian Americans. Since the last few decades, Asian Americans have also been stereotyped as the “model minority.” Therefore, the theory of horizontal hostility in which minority group members tend to display prejudice against members of a similar but more mainstream minority group cannot be applied (White & Langer, 1999), because Asian Americans are considered to be the more mainstream minority group compared to African Americans in this case. Furthermore, the results supported Shapiro and Neuberg’s (2008) study that while there was no immediate majority group threat, members of a racial minority group tended to favor members of another racial minority group.

Several limitations may have contributed to the failure to reach significance. First of all, the sample size was too small. Only 13 people responded to the questionnaire I sent out via the internet. Secondly, the one-to-five scale questionnaire was difficult to measure the subtle differences of the participants’ level of empathy. The egalitarian attitude toward racial groups has been more favorable since the last few decades, and as a consequence, racism has shifted from the explicit forms to more implicit, subtle forms (Blanchard et al. 1994). Correspondingly, most of the reported scores regarding attitudes toward racial minority members’ experiences of discrimination fell into scores of three to five in the study, which may have resulted in the failure to find significant differences between the awareness and the control group. Finally, unlike the study by Batson et al. (1997), I used statistics instead of personal accounts to address experiences of racial discrimination which may have been less effective in inducing empathy. Empathy is typically occurs in an interpersonal level rather than between groups. Recognizing discrimination of one’s own racial group may result in the empathetic feelings toward members in the same group that are more difficult to be generalized into an abstract category of racial minority as a whole.

In this study, Asian Americans displayed empathetic attitudes toward African Americans’ experiences of discrimination, even though the effect of recognizing discrimination of one’s own racial group on empathy remains unfounded. The impact of inducing empathy to African Americans on their change of attitudes toward Asian Americans as well as other effects of racism on the interaction among racial minorities also remain unexplored in the area of research. The findings of the current study provide a perspective for thinking about racial discrimination beyond the oversimplified, dichotomous relationship of the “oppressor” versus “victim,” and considering the strategies of resistance created among racial minorities. The study hopes to contribute to a more complex understanding of interracial interaction and facilitate development of coalitions among racial minorities in a white dominant society.

Baston, C. D., Polycarpou, M. P., Harmon-Jones, E., Imhoff, Heidi J., Mitchener, E. C., Bednar, L. L., Klein, T. R., & Highberger, L. (1997). Empathy and Attitudes: Can Feeling for a member Stigmatized Group Improve Feelings Toward the Group? American Psychological Association, 72(1), 105-118.

Blanchard, F. A., Crandall, C. S., Brigham, J. C., & Vaughn L. A. (1994). Condemning and Condoning Racism: A Social Context Approach to Interracial Settings. American Psychological Association, 79(6), 993-997.

Shapiro J. R. & Neuberg, S. L. When Do the Stigmatized Stigmatize? The Ironic Effects of Being Accountable to (Perceived) Majority Group Prejudice-Expression Norms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 877-898.

Sidanius, J., Van Laar, C., Levin, S. (2004). Ethnic Enclaves and the Dynamics of Social Identity on the College Campus: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 96-110.

White, J. B. & Langer, E. J. (1999). Horizontal Hostility: Relations Between Similar Minority Groups. Journal of Social Issues, 55(3), 537-559.

Wu, F. (2002). The Power of Coalitions: Why I Teach at Howard. Yellow: Race in America beyond Black and Whit (301-342). New York: Basic Books.